The Final Call Online Edition



WEB POSTED 05-16-2001

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Can food promote early puberty in children?
by Manasseh Jinnah
-Guest Columnist-

Girls in the U.S. and other industrialized nations are reaching puberty at drastically earlier ages. Puberty is when the body begins to produce a large amount of sex hormones. Puberty used to occur at about 16 or 17 years of age, and over the course of this century, it has been occurring at younger ages in children in certain cultures. In the United States, some girls are now becoming sexually active and pregnant as young as age nine.

Many fear that"precocious puberty," or "early puberty," is caused by diet and lifestyle factors, such as eating meat from animals injected with growth hormones and possibly from food contaminated by certain pesticide residues.

A nationwide study, published in the journal Pediatrics in 1997, raises concerns about increased incidences of early puberty and other early sexual development.

"Nearly half of all Black girls and 15 percent of white girls, the study says, are beginning to develop sexually at the age of eight. For some, the trend starts even earlier, and is known as precocious puberty: Three percent of Black girls and one percent of white girls show signs of development as early as three," writes Becky Gillette, in an Internet article published by Green Living for Your Health.

Early sexual maturation can be alarming and confusing for young girl and parent alike. However, much attention has been paid recently to the growing number of 6- and 7-year-old girls who are showing signs of breast development and/or pubic hair growth.

Some researchers also believe girls today develop sooner because of the increasing problem of obesity in our society. Weight changes have a profound effect upon the timing of puberty. Excess fat in the body causes the production of excess estrogen.

Commercially produced meat and milk products contain residues of growth-promoting hormones. These have estrogenic activity, so they could stimulate early menstruation. Critics say at least one hormone was approved for use despite evidence that it induces early puberty and abnormal growth of mammary tissue in young female calves. Feedlot cattle are treated with natural and synthetic sex hormones to promote faster growth.

Whole flocks and herds are dosed with antibodies, often to compensate for poor conditions on farms. Some scientists and nutrition researchers believe that residues of hormones fed to cattle enter the human food supply.

Suspected effects of hormonal imbalances in humans eating meat and/or drinking milk from hormone-treated cattle include obesity, infertility, hypoglycemia, androgyny in both sexes (including excessive breast development in males), breast and genital tenderness and cancer.

In the 1980s, there was an epidemic of premature puberty in very young girls (some under four-years-old) in Puerto Rico. This was traced to chickens, beef and locally-produced whole milk with unusually high residues of some hormones.

Sexual development in children six years and younger should be evaluated by a physician. In some cases, early sexual development can cause a tumor, or other pathological conditions later in life, some believe.

In addition to the physical affect, there is a psychological effect from premature sexual maturity. Girls who look like teenagers come under intense pressure to act like teenagers and in the process lose out on childhood.

The psychological effects cannot be underestimated; girls can be teased mercilessly when they start to develop before classmates. A lack of sex education at such an early age also creates fear and confusion for girls who literally don’t have a clue as to what is happening when they start menstruation.

As girls go through puberty at younger ages, they must deal with their own confusion and with pressures from society, which they are not emotionally equipped to handle.

Some girls develop certain psychological problems, such as depression and moodiness, and they may initiate sexual activity at earlier ages.

Talking to your teenage daughter about becoming a woman is tough enough, but imagine having that talk at age 7 or even 4?

Despite the fears and some research, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has declared residue levels of hormones used to promote growth in livestock are safe and well below any level that would have an effect in humans.

Though more research is required on the links between hormones and possible impact on premature sexual development, caution is warranted. That could include minimizing the amount of animal food fed to children or only using organically produced meat, poultry or dairy products certified free of hormones; and a low-fat diet is recommended.

In China where people eat mostly
rice and vegetables and rarely consume meat or dairy products, the average girl reaches puberty at 17. By contrast, the gradual introduction of meat into the Japanese diet has coincided with a drop of age of puberty in Japan from 15 to 12.5 years in just 40 years.

I see a lot of girls who look like women, but mentally are children. We should not let hormone-tainted meat and cow’s milk rob our babies of their innocence and childhood.

(Manasseh Jinnah is a writer based in Grand Rapids, Mich.)



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